On the Use of May or Might By Ganiu Abisoye Bamgbose (GAB)

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On the Use of May or Might By Ganiu Abisoye Bamgbose (GAB)

Most fundamentally, these modal auxiliary verbs are the present and the past forms of each other and are used as such as seen in the sentences below:

I may leave here now (present).

He might have called earlier (past).

Beyond this difference at the level of tense, grammarians talk about modality; which is the use of these modal auxiliary verbs and other ones to express different moods such as ability, possibility, certainty, assumption, deduction, intention, obligation, permission, request and so on. In using may and might to express moods, let me state that they have two relationships.  On the one hand, they are used to express the same mood with varying degrees and on the other hand, they express different moods.

In the first relationship, both may and might can be used to express possibility and/or probability. May expresses this mood in a seemingly factual way while might expresses the mood as being remotely possible. This is illustrated below:

We may go on vacation.

If you are quick, you might get there on time.

Both sentences express possibility with different communicative force. The first expresses a greater likeliness than the other.


In the second relationship, may can be used to express a wish or hope while might will generate a seemingly awkward sentence:

May you be successful (appropriate).

Might you be successful (awkward).

Also, may clearly expresses permission and possibility but might would, again, seem awkward for this purpose.

May I come in (appropriate)?

Might I come in (awkward)?

May I suggest you move on with your life (appropriate)?

Might I suggest you move on with your life (awkward)?

However, when talking about something that is not going to happen, it is better to use might just to avoid ambiguity. For instance, in the expression:

I may not see you tomorrow.

One wonders if you will not be allowed to see me tomorrow or if you will not want to see me tomorrow. The choice of might reduces the chances of this ambiguity and so it becomes more straightforward to say: I might not see you tomorrow.

A comprehensive understanding of these modal verbs and others is not feasible in a single document. Users of English, especially second language speakers, are therefore advised to read as many books and dictionaries as possible for a good mastery of this class of verbs. I hope that you find this helpful.

© 2019 Ganiu Abisoye Bamgbose (GAB)

Doctoral Candidate of English, University of Ibadan

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